As Winnipegger Nafiya Naso watched her father and his brother embrace late on the night of July 11, both her smile and her tears spoke volumes.
Naso’s father, Enez Jallo, has been living in Winnipeg for 15 years, since fleeing Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime in 1990 and then spending nine years in a refugee camp in Syria.
Naso’s uncle, Khudher Jallo, had just arrived in Winnipeg with his wife and six children, after fleeing Islamic State attacks on their hometown of Sinjar, northern Iraq, and spending two years on the run and in a refugee camp in Turkey.
The brothers had not seen each other in 26 years.
The Khudher Jallo family was initially scheduled to leave Turkey for Canada on June 29, but a terrorist attack on the Istanbul airport delayed that departure.
When the family finally disembarked in Winnipeg almost two weeks later, they represented the first of seven Yazidi refugee families who have been privately sponsored to Manitoba’s capital under the auspices of a local Jewish community initiative.
That initiative is called Operation Ezra, for the Hebrew word for help. It was organized a year and a half ago after 27-year-old Naso was invited to speak to Jewish community members about the plight of the Yazidi people.
The Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority primarily from northern Iraq. Their religion, Yazidism, is one of the oldest faiths in the world. Monotheistic and syncretic, it combines pre-Islamic Assyrian traditions with elements of Zoroastrianism and other ancient faiths, and a reverence for the Peacock Angel known as Melek Taus.
“The Yazidis officially became noticed as an identifiable ethno-religious minority in the early 15th century, when surrounding Muslim rulers had begun to view them as apostates and rivals for political power,” Naso explains.
Chastised as devil worshipers, they have been repeatedly attacked and vilified over the past 700 years.
“The Yazidis have suffered 74 massacres in their history by Shi’ites, Sunnis... and governments, due to religious, ethnic, cultural and national intolerance,” Naso says. “These numbers have been recorded by Yazidis, governments and different organizations such as the UN and Iraq’s Red Crescent and many more organizations.”
The massacres, which have decimated a population of 23 million to about 700,000, include four coordinated suicide bomb attacks detonated in the Yazidi towns of Kahtaniya and Jazeera in 2007, and the ISIS attack on Sinjar in August 2014.
That attack, according to the organizations Yazda and Yezidi International, resulted in the murder of hundreds of Yazidi men, women and children and the abduction and forced conversion of thousands more.
About 50,000 Yazidis, including Khuder Jallo and his family, were displaced.
Naso’s depictions of her people’s suffering struck a chord with Jewish community members.
“The Yazidis are targeted solely because of their religious beliefs and have no country to protect them nor means to protect themselves,” says Yolanda Papini- Pollock, a volunteer with Operation Ezra.
“Their plight reminded us of historical periods prior to the establishment of Israel in which Jews were defenseless targets of hate and persecution because of their religion,” she adds. “We remembered that most people and countries were indifferent to the Jewish plight and very few stretched their arms to help.”
That ancestral memory, fused with the post Holocaust mantra of Never Again, helped galvanize support for Operation Ezra among Winnipeg’s 14,000-member Jewish community. Within months, Operation Ezra managed to raise more than $200,000 for the sponsorship and resettlement of the seven Yazidi families, all of whom are known to members of Winnipeg’s 180-member Yazidi community and all of whom will make Canada their permanent home.
Canada encourages the private sponsorship of refugees, but also limits how many private sponsorships can be undertaken in any given year. Funds for private sponsorships also must be raised in advance to guarantee that the refugees will not become a burden on society during their first year in the country. These funds, about $27,000 for a family of four, are used to help house, feed, clothe and acclimatize the refugees to their new and permanent home.
In the process of raising the necessary funds for the Yazidi sponsorships, Operation Ezra attracted the support of other faith groups and evolved into one of the most comprehensive Yazidi rescue operations in the world. It also began lobbying the federal government for a large-scale government-sponsored rescue and relief operation on behalf of the Yazidi people. In the past six months, the Canadian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has welcomed 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees to Canada. Operation Ezra would like to see the same be done for the Yazidi people.
In the meantime, Nafiya Naso for her part could not be happier or more grateful for all that Operation Ezra has done.
“As I watched the horrific attacks being committed in August 2014 and saw such a weak response from the international community, I knew I had to do something,” she said. “Thankfully there were others like myself in the city who felt the same.”
Many of those “others” were at the airport with Naso earlier this week to witness the long-overdue embrace of her father and uncle, two brothers separated for years by hostility and war and reunited in their new home by goodwill and compassion. The author is a journalist and oral historian in Winnipeg and a former interpretive writer with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.